Where: Throughout the Hawaiian islands amongst indigenous communities, centred in Hawai’i
History: Pre-language dance tool to pass on community history, involving sacrifice
What’s it about: Grace, beauty, eyes and facial emotion and swaying hips
Experience: At April’s Merrie Monarch Festival in Hawai’i
Hula is one of the most famous icons of Hawai’ian culture, yet years of mass tourism have made the dance into a garish tourist spectacle that does not display it’s rich and varied history. Few visitors to the Hawai’ian Islands realize this dance is a sacred aspect of Hawai’ian culture.
The Hula has been used for centuries as a tool to pass on history before the Hawai’ian language was developed into a written text. Secret locations called Heiaus were used by Hawai’ians to practice Hula and animal and human sacrifices to their gods preceded these rites. Though many were destroyed by missionaries, ruins of Heiaus can still be found all over the Hawai’ian islands.
Traditional hula ceremonies are off limits to uninvited guests and the participants must perform
certain rituals and chants to cleanse themselves before they begin a performance. Banned by missionaries in the 19th century as evil, the resulting destruction of this unique art form began the separation of native Hawai’ians from their way of life. Today the cultural revival all over the islands has brought back the Hula to the former place of honour in Hawai’ian culture.
How to Hula
Hula is known as the ‘beautiful dance’ and it has more in common with Far Eastern dances like Kathakali in which visual emotion and expression is favoured over the rhythms and set moves of Western dances. Swaying hips, arms, fingers but most importantly the eyes and face are the key movers in Hula. It is practiced barefoot, and the simple left to right feet movement are of secondary importance. No plastic hoops or thrusting hips are involved in the authentic hula!
How to See authentic Hula
In April of each year the weeklong Merrie Monarch Festival is held in Hilo on the island of Hawai’i. Contestants travel from all over the Hawai’ian islands to compete on the Big Island and troups as well as individuals perform in front of the crowds. The competition is broadcast on local TV stations and spectators are welcome to view the performances.
Merrie Monarch Festival
Info on Hawai’i’s premier Hula festival
Alau Hula Ka No’eau, Hula Dance Academy
A Hawaiian Dance academy
Main image courtesy of: Photo © Alan L., licensed Creative Commons Attribution. Traditional Hula is a far cry from shows aimed at tourists. These dancers perform a dedication to Volcano Goddess Pele.
By Dave Lowe